The Broadway Actors Matrimonial Service
My name is Sergei and I managed to get out of Romania almost thirty years ago by paying an American woman $10,000 to marry me. We got married at City Hall, just a few hundred feet from the Brooklyn Bridge, and I never saw her again.
I got a job working for my boyhood friend, Serene, who also came here by marrying an American. But they actually loved each other, and remain married to this day.
Serene had always liked the theater, and he hired me to assist him. He was what is called a house paperer. Every day he bought up several hundred theater tickets for off-Broadway plays – usually for just two or three dollars apiece – and resold them for eight or ten dollars.
Everybody came out ahead. The ticket buyers got deeply discounted seats without having to wait on long lines, and picked up their tickets within blocks of the theater. The actors play to full houses. And Serene made money. So what was not to like?
Serene had three other Romanians working for him, none of whom had a “Green Card,” which would have entitled them to work here legally. Virtually all of the ticket buyers were regulars, and everything was on the up-and-up.
But after a couple of years, I began to grow restless. So I decided to move on. I did a little of this and a little of that, while I always had my house papering gig to fall back on.
It wasn’t until about twenty-five years later that my luck suddenly changed. My friend Caroline asked me for “a great big favor.”
“Well, Sergei, I’ll let you be the judge of that.”
Caroline, who is a fairly prominent author, had not been to her office in over two weeks. Why? Someone had been murdered in the building.
Like me, Caroline is nocturnal, never getting up before two or three in the afternoon. Luckily, her office is in a building that stays open 24/7. But on the downside, it is largely unoccupied after 8 or 9 pm.
“So would you be able to stay with me for five or six hours, while I go through all my mail, and try to get a little work done?”
“Sure. But why don’t you just take all the mail home?”
“Three reasons. First, it’s too much to bring home. I’d rather have a messy office than a messy apartment. Second, I’d then have to lug some of it back to the office. And third, the main reason I rent the office is to go through the mail and store my files.”
I love Caroline, and one of her charms is that she can be a little compulsive. In fact, she’s written three books on organizing your life, and she had won some kind of award from a group that advocates for people with psychological disorders similar to her own.
So there was no way I could argue against her logic. “Of course Caroline. I would be most happy to help you.”
“Great! Maybe bring along a book to read. I promise it won’t be more than six hours.”
At 8pm the next evening, we met in front of an old seven-storey building on Third Ave. just below 14th Street. A uniformed guard asked for our IDs and had us sign in. Then he went back to whatever he was watching on a small TV and we took the elevator to the top floor. We walked down a long corridor lined with doors with frosted windows.
As we walked, I asked, “Are these all offices?”
“I think so. If they came in dress sizes, mine would be a 1. In fact, my office is actually divided into two cubicles.”
“Who has the other one?”
“Sergei, did you ever hear of Elaine Champagne?”
“I’m afraid not. I just got off the boat.”
“You got off the boat twenty-five years ago, Anyway, Elaine was a very highly regarded theatrical agent.”
“What happened to her? No wait! Let me guess: she drank too much of the bubbly stuff and lost all of her clients.”
“Worse! Much worse! Her son, who was in his mid-twenties, and a newly-wed, committed suicide.”
I just stared at Caroline.
“She hasn’t been back to her office since then. Not even to pick up her mail. And for all I know, maybe all of her clients did leave her.”
“That is such an awful story. You’re not in touch with her?”
“I’ve tried calling her and leaving messages. But it’s been two years. The only thing I know is that she still pays the rent on her office.”
We stopped at a door near the end of the hall, and she let us in. It was a windowless room divided into two cubicles, each about ten by twelve feet.
Caroline immediately got down to work, and I squeezed into Elaine Champagne’s cubicle. It was almost entirely filled with stacks of mail. Imagine if you went to the main post office when they were on strike.
I cleared off her chair and a little space on her desk. But I had to be careful not to cause an avalanche. There had to be tens of thousands of pieces of mail. I began going through a small stack. On top was a postcard with a glossy headshot of a smiling guy who reminded me of Ashton Kutcher. On the back was a note about a showcase he was staring in. Next was a card from a beautiful woman who proudly noted her appearance in a Volvo commercial.
I went through another dozen cards before it struck me that nobody had a clue that Elaine Champagne was no longer in the industry. They were doing mass mailings to every New York theatrical agent in the hopes that one would take them on. How sad is that?
I kept reading. A lot of the notes struck a personal tone, as if Ms. Champagne closely followed the actors’ careers: “In case you missed me on the HBO special, it will be rebroadcast next Sunday at 4pm.” Or, “Please keep me in mind for a role, however small, in any upcoming musicals.”
Finally, we were ready for a break. Caroline explained that hundreds of these cards still arrived every week. Everybody needed a theatrical agent – even one who might be terminally depressed. When I went back to the mail, I decided to put all the headshot cards into two neat piles – boys in one pile and girls in the other. I’m not that much of a neatnik, but an idea was beginning to form, and I knew that I would find a use for them.
When we were getting ready to leave, I asked Caroline if I could take some of the cards home.
“Sure! Take all of them! God only knows if Elaine will ever be back!”
So I filled a couple of shopping bags, and we made our way down to the street. I walked her home and then spent the rest of the night figuring out what I would do with the cards. Early the next afternoon when I woke up, I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote down these words: The Broadway Actors Matrimonial Service. It turned out to be the best idea I had ever had.
Remember the $10,000 I paid an American woman to marry me? What we had had has long been known as a “Green Card marriage,” because an immigrant who marries an American can get an expedited Green Card, or work permit. There are hundreds of thousands of Eastern European men and women who would agree to pay someone a lot more than $10,000 to go through with this charade.
So far, so good. Foreigners are willing to pay their way into the United States, and there are Americans willing to be paid to marry them. So why not arrange marriages between Eastern Europeans and American actors and actresses?
Tens of thousands of actors live in New York, but only a very small percentage of them can support themselves by acting – or doing commercials. Most of them get by with relatively low-paying jobs like waiting tables, tending bar, doing office temp work, and providing childcare. Many of them were saddled with huge student debts. I was sure that some would jump at the chance to pick up a sizeable amount of money by agreeing to a Green Card marriage.
But wait: there’s more! What if we could add a sweetener? Even more than money, what most actors crave is finding a theatrical agent. Let me add here that we’re not talking about just some schmuck who claims to be an agent, but can’t do anything for his clients that they can’t do on their own. No, I mean a real, honest-to-goodness, seasoned, respected, and legitimate theatrical agent.
I talked this over with Serene. He had an idea. There were three agents who shared an office on Broadway in the forties. They had a perfect location. There was only one problem. Their landlord wanted to double their rent. There was no way they could manage it. And there wasn’t any other suitable space they could afford in the theatrical district.
Serene made the connection. “If we set up a bunch of Green Card marriages of actors and Eastern Europeans – and take a cut of the dowry – we could keep these agents in business.”
“Wow!” I immediately saw the light. “And then we could offer their services to the new brides and grooms as a kind of wedding present.” Leave it to two Romanian immigrants to make the American dream come true.
In a few weeks a couple of our old friends in Romania had set up a website on which were headshots of dozens of very attractive actors and actresses. Are you wondering why we bothered setting up in Romania? Well, think about it! If you saw your picture on someone’s website – and they were using it to make money, wouldn’t you demand that they stop?
But if that website happened to be in a country like Romania or Moldavia or Russia – it would be much less likely that they would comply. And it might be almost impossible to sue.
Another potential problem would also be averted. While green card marriages are legal, the State Department would find ways to shut us down if we operated in the U.S.
On Valentine’s Day of 2011, a few dozen actors and actresses received the following e-mail:
We are an international talent agency based in Eastern Europe, and would like to make you an interesting two-part offer. First, if you are willing to enter into a “green card” marriage with someone from Eastern Europe, you will be paid $35,000. Your spouse needs to be legally married in order to live in the United States, and to obtain a “Green Card.” Before you take your vows, each of you will have in hand a “no-fault” divorce agreement. Once you are married, you will be under no obligation to ever see each other ever again. Your only
obligation will be to stay married until your spouse receives her or his Green Card.
Now comes even better news. We can get you representation with a
reputable theatrical agent based in the theater district.
Within hours after our e-mail went out, we began receiving replies. Some were a little nasty: “How DARE you invade my privacy!” “DIE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” “Rot in Hell!”
Others were somewhat quizzical: “Is this a joke?” “Are you legit?” “How did you get my e-mail address?”
But a few actually asked how they could sign up.
In the meanwhile, we spread the word through the social media and some carefully placed ads throughout the former Soviet bloc nations for green card seekers. We were completely upfront that it would cost them $50,000.
The response was unbelievable! Serene and I joked that we should become ordained ministers and perform mass marriages at Yankee Stadium. Our Romanian counterparts addressed us as the Rev Serene and the Rev Sergei. That made us feel like real Americans.
On June 3rd Serene and I witnessed the first marriage, which was held at City Hall. And before the summer was over, there were twenty-three more. We were on our way.
Just before Christmas, a new bride, who had signed with one of our agents got a part in a Broadway play. To celebrate, Serene and I had dinner at Sardi’s.
“So what’s our next move?”
“I don’t know, Sergei. You’re the idea man.”
“Thanks, Serene. You wanna know what I was thinking?”
“Well, with all our contacts and the money we’ve been making, why don’t we produce our own play?”
“OK, I’m listening.”
“I’ve already got the title. We’ll call it, ‘The Broadway Actors Matrimonial Service.’”
“So far, so good.”
“We already have the cast.”
“Sure Serene. Our newlyweds.”
“That’s going to be a pretty large cast.”
“If we were making a movie, most of them would be extras. Well actually, we can give them relative short speaking parts.”
Serene sat there letting this all sink in. Then I continued.
“Now hold on to your seat. Our play is going to be on Broadway.”
“What are you nuts, Sergei? Who would put our play on Broadway?”
“Sergei, you are one crazy Romanian! We’re talking about filling the house with at least 500 tushies. How can we possibly do that night-after-night?”
I didn’t say anything. After maybe six or eight seconds Serene began to smile. Then we burst out laughing. We would paper our own house!
“One week, limited engagement. Eight performances, which comes to ‘selling’ 4,000 seats. If we give each performer a couple of free tickets for each performance, that would take care of almost half the seats. And who knows: Maybe we’ll even sell some tickets.”
Three months later, we were ready for opening night. There were no previews performances. We knew we would lose a lot of money on our scheme, but we were not at all prepared for what happened next. Predictably the critics were brutal. If you think of what Bialystock and Bloom had counted on happening when they put on Springtime for Hitler, it turns out “The Broadway Actors Matrimonial Service” exceeded even those low expectations. “Complete Shit!” headlined one of the kinder reviews we received. And unlike Bialystock and Bloom’s play, ours was not perceived by audiences as a comedy. It was, by far, the worst play they had ever seen.
A reviewer for The Times suggested that if Tonys were given for “the worst” in all major categories, our play would make a clean sweep – except for the acting. As he pointed out, “Even the world’s greatest acting ensemble could not have rescued this piece of drek!”
Alongside its review, Variety placed a cartoon with this caption: “What Hirschfeld would have drawn had he still been alive.” Above the caption was a blank sheet of paper.
As word spread about the worst play in the history of Broadway, the completely unexpected happened. Legitimate ticket demand actually started climbing, and we were able to hold the play over for another week, and then still another. Audiences flocked to see for themselves just how bad a Broadway play could be. And they were not disappointed.
Our play finally closed after a very respectable six-month run. One week later an e-mail blast went to over 2,000 actors and actresses:
We are an international talent agency based in Eastern Europe, and would like to extend a three-part offer. First, we will pay you $35,000 to temporarily marry someone from Eastern Europe who needs a “green card.” Second, we will provide representation with a highly successful American theatrical agent. And third, within the next year, you will be cast in a Broadway play.